The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is getting an early start on reminding Congress that the First Responder Network Authority – which oversees a contract under which AT&T is building out a nationwide broadband network for first responders – needs to be reauthorized by lawmakers by 2027.
The government watchdog agency also provided feedback on which part of the Federal government might oversee FirstNet in future years.
FirstNet was created in 2012, with responsibility for conducting public safety outreach and consults; holding spectrum licenses; administering and overseeing the network contract; and managing network updates and reinvesting fee revenue.
In a new report, GAO recommends that Congress reauthorize FirstNet before 2027 – when its current authorization is set to expire – to ensure continuity of service.
“The current statute does not identify another federal entity to assume oversight when FirstNet sunsets,” GAO wrote. “Without any legislative action, network operations and improvements would be at risk and could result in the loss of service for public-safety users.”
“FirstNet expects to collect and reinvest $18 billion in fees from AT&T over the 25-year duration of the contract with AT&T. However, the statute does not identify an organization to assume responsibility for fee collection and reinvestment if FirstNet’s authority is terminated,” GAO continued. “Congressional action on key statutory requirements and contract responsibilities is essential for network continuity and enhancement.”
GAO gave Congress two options to ensure the continuity of the program and its authorities: either reauthorize the program or transfer its authorities to one or more agencies.
The FirstNet program is currently overseen by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). GAO said keeping the authority within the NTIA would mean no new costs for the Federal government, and added the program aligns with NTIA’s mission.
GAO said that key stakeholders did not report any advantages of moving FirstNet to another agency. It did say, however, that a move away from NTIA could come with disadvantages of additional costs for transitioning its authorities and needing to rebuild stakeholder trust.
However, stakeholders did see potential advantages in establishing FirstNet as its own Federal agency, GAO said. Advantages to that move would include allowing FirstNet to operate without the constraints of another Federal agency, but disadvantages may include losing oversight methods and needing financial and legal support to aid in standing up mission-support services, GAO said.